The Promised Land Review: Mads Mikkelsen Makes a Meal out of Epic Danish Western
Current Movie Reviews: Mads Mikkelsen Commands This Danish Western
Nikolaj Arcel’s historical epic The Promised Land, starring Mads Mikkelsen, is a Danish Western with some deeper questions. Read on for our review.
Best Movies to Watch: Mads Mikkelsen’s The Promised Land
Whenever a movie needs a leading man who can bring a commanding presence defined by grim stoicism, buried compassion, and slivers of menace, it’s hard to think of a better actor for the job than Mads Mikkelsen.
His latest, Nikolaj Arcel’s historical epic The Promised Land, is a more personal work that clearly means a lot to him, especially when viewed in comparison to the quite uneven franchise films he’s gotten caught up in as of late.
In many regards, his new Danish Western feels distinctly old-fashioned in both its tone and Mikkelsen’s measured approach to the material.
It is a grim historical epic that, while not without its moments of lightheartedness, is wrapped up in a cold blanket that provides no protection from the harsh world it inhabits as composer Dan Romer’s sweeping score washes over you. The film is beautiful to behold in many moments, but, much like how our own lives can be defined by striving for something approaching stability only to discover there is no underlying ground, it is also consistently bleak.
Movie Reviews: The Story of Ludvig Kahlen
At first viewing when it screened at the most recent Toronto International Film Festival, Mikkelsen’s committed performance leaped out even as some aspects of the narrative remained a bit stiff with the film’s progression. Months later, as The Promised Land gets a wide theatrical release through Magnolia Pictures, such moments fade away, and it all mostly comes together when resting upon its lead’s shoulders. Much like the character he plays, Mikkelsen does a lot with very little, giving life to a barren world that is often defined by death and suffering. It is in his piercing stare that we are taken into the entire interior world of tumult he is trying to contain. When it emerges, we observe a portrait of a largely unknown chapter in a cruel history and the otherwise ordinary man who made a place for himself in it. It is this and Mikkelsen’s performance that ensures the film resonates despite its setbacks.
Best Movies: What Is The Promised Land About?
In 1755, we meet Ludvig Kahlen (Mikkelsen), who is trying to build a life for himself in his home of Denmark after serving in the German Army. With little other than the clothes on his back, he sets his sights on the remote Jutland Heath to cultivate and make it hospitable for a community to inhabit. When he seeks permission to do this, he is not taken seriously as this undertaking is believed to be too challenging for even those of high status, let alone someone who is considered to be nobody. Undeterred, Ludvig sets out to do the impossible.
He will have to contend with not only a harsh environment but also Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg), a brutish buffoon of a man who owns the land around him and considers Ludvig’s efforts to be a threat to his control. With limited options, Ludvig will rely on those like couple Johannes Eriksen (Morten Hee Andersen) and Ann Barbara (Amanda Collin), two laborers who fled the abysmal treatment of de Schinkel to survive. Also joining in on this is the young Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg), a Roma girl who has been orphaned and has nowhere else to go. Other familiar machinations will come to threaten all they’re building, though it is in this core group of characters where The Promised Land reveals its soul.
Film Review: Mads Mikkelsen’s Complicated Character
There could easily be a version of this film that falls into more conventional broad strokes where Ludvig is a flawless underdog against the forces that would seek to keep him down. While you do get invested in his mission, this is not because the film has sanded down his many flaws. It recalls how the recent film The Settlers did not shy away from the realities of what the people living at this time did in the name of “progress,” although it may not do so as boldly as that film. The Promised Land certainly hits more familiar emotional beats, but there is always that more complicated darkness lurking underneath. When Ludvig first sets out, there is a callousness with which he treats the others he relies on. Mikkelsen, in a fascinating recent interview in The New Yorker, apparently pushed for these rougher edges to remain present from the beginning of the film, and it pays off. His Ludvig feels like a real person that you see being ugly and mean in often unflinching fashion against the landscape’s gorgeous yet haunting backdrop. There is truly a sense that he would throw just about anyone under the bus, or horse, for his own gain. It makes his gradual shift towards being more compassionate an earned one. It doesn’t feel like The Promised Land is reaching for being superficially “inspiring” as much as it is truthful about who this man may have been.
Mads Mikkelsen: Magnificent Performance
As the film downshifts ever so slightly, it builds to more melancholic notes that start to ask broader questions about why it was that Ludvig set out to do all this. Even as he achieves much of what he hoped for, we can see the toll this has taken on his soul in Mikkelsen’s eyes. Though he plays his character as an outwardly gruff man light on divulging his emotions, we see doubt creeping in about whether it was worth the cost. Just as he always has, Mikkelsen remains in command of every move, bringing a quiet grace that contrasts perfectly with the grim world his character is fighting. Even as the story hits some familiar beats, he gives it the necessary fury and force. When the film then proceeds to ride off into the proverbial sunset with the entire world behind him, it provides a more complicated coda that raises just one more question to chew on. In the end, history may remember men like Ludvig, but The Promised Land moves us to reflect a bit more deeply on what it is that this was all truly for.
The Promised Land sees Mads Mikkelsen giving a magnificent performance that helps to complicate its more familiar elements and offers a bit more to chew on.
Western Movies: The Promised Land Release Date
The Promised Land comes to theaters in the U.S. starting February 2.
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